By Teresa Madeline
In East London where I now live and roam the hip streets, there are new pieces of street art popping up faster than the mayor can say ‘ASBO’. With such a culturally unique atmosphere surrounding me, and the fear of looking completely uncool as I stutter my way through my local art knowledge, how could I not use London Street Art Tours as an opportunity to sharpen up on my urban art awareness?
Apparent from the get-go is that our guide knows his stuff. With his insider knowledge, I wonder whether Karim is part of this anti-establishment. But he remains tentatively tight-lipped, claiming to only ‘dabble’ in spray canister artistry here and there. Unconvinced, I’m fairly certain he’s a full on curb-side creative who keeps his wall mural cards close to his chest.
As we continue, Karim describes how he thinks street art is a reaction to the digital world; “People wanted something more tangible. It’s a kind of activism and anti-advertising.”
Undoubtedly, there is something hugely appealing about the liberalizing, rebellious nature of street art. Starving away your years while pursuing a salary-less existence, waiting for a curator to ‘recognise’ your talent, and then lining their pockets for putting up your hard work on a blank wall in their drab art gallery. Street artists however, have put a big middle finger up to the entire art world; they force their way up into public vision, whether we like it or not.
As our tour guide explains that the use of the word ‘graffiti’ is a bit of a grey area. Once a creative outlet for frustrated, underrepresented youths wanting to stake their claim on their local turf as they elude police sirens, dodge bullets and what not; graffiti is now more of a sunny afternoon, post-latte, pastime of the not-so deprived middle-class art student. In an effort to respect its grittier roots, the term more commonly used now is ‘street art’.
The tour is absolutely eye-opening. The sheer vastness of the street art scene within a two mile radius is overwhelming. There is so much to take in, yet Karim knows almost every single piece of work on every bit of wall, complete with an interesting background story about almost each one.
Some of my favourite discoveries from the tour:
Ben Wilson’s chewing gum art is as much a homage to icky-ness as it is to the artist’s skill of painting things really, really small. Wilson also runs the risk of looking like a complete weirdo, standing in the middle of the pavement for extended periods of time, warming up gum with a blowtorch, and then painting his mini murals in acrylic, before finally sealing them with varnish. These specimens lay claim to my admiration because they are not the in-your-face ‘look how big I can write my totally ironic tag-name’ type pieces; they are hidden gems that lie humbly under the soles of our feet. They laugh in the face of blinkered Londoner’s, renowned for their tendency to block out the rest of the world once out the door and tube-bound, their attention whirled away by the dreaded rush hour. Thousands of people have trodden on these beauties every single day without realising they had a whole world of wonder at their toes.
His art also questions the logic of the legal system, which despite several attempts, has failed to prosecute Wilson for damage of public property, finding that painting on chewing gum which is, in fact, litter can’t be classed as damaging property as it is not owned by anyone
Zadok’s completely awesome 25 minute art. With every periphery sporting an art piece, it’s easy to become desensitized to how completely talented these guys are. One artist that brings this home is Zadok. He completed his technically brilliant wasp piece that sits conveniently on Old Street roundabout in an astonishing 25 minutes one Friday night. As you do.
Zadok’s eminence as an artist is obvious at the sight of the numerous leech tags from other artists. Others have placed their signatures near Zadok’s famous piece of work in the hope that it will have them surfing the same wave of success.
Phlegm’s medieval, surrealistic and unique designs are incredible. These are Karim’s favourite pieces and I can completely see why. Coming from an illustrative background, Phlegm has created his own highly original style. His designs are alien and dreamlike with intrinsic detail, using only jets of black with white.
His style is so recognizable and unique to him that he doesn’t even need to sign his name on them, enough said.
Conor Harrington’s immense Gothic murals are obviously not your traditional graffiti. Harrington, a member of ‘The Outsiders’ galleries where his paintings can sell for up to £80,000, has a very fine art approach to street art. Photographing models dressed in gothic outfits, and then spending days on a scissor lift to paint them huge scale on building sides, isn’t the usual freedom most street artists are gifted with. Most of his outdoor work is commissioned, and as much as this seems to battle with the rebellious essence and anarchic spirit of street art and its roots, it’s impossible to deny how stunningly authentic the pieces are.
Gold Peg, the fun female graffitist, is worth a mention not just because she is a woman in a very male orientated space, but because her pieces bring a playful vibrancy to an often dreary London. Apparently the urge to spray paint one’s name onto a public wall, spawns from the virile urge to define territory, a more eloquent form of what dogs do to lampposts. Peg is one of the rare female artists that risks life, limb and legal backlash to scale the rooftops of East London and spray her bright, iconic pegs in the most prominent yet difficult to access spots. She is often found alongside pieces by Nemo, Sweet Toof, Tek 33 and Mighty Mo, who collaborate in much of the work they do.
Stik’s rag to riches story touches a nerve and goes to show the power of street art when it comes to marketing the raw talent of its faithful. Starting from a simple black and white stick character spotted around on the walls of Shoreditch, there is now a six month waiting list to buy a Stik canvas. Less than two years ago, Stik was living in a homeless shelter, art was his only way of communicating and it’s what paved his way to a better life. What makes his characters so special is that despite their absolute simplicity, they are able to convey the most empathetic, humanistic emotions.
Mobstr’s ingenious commentary uses a simple caps locked typeface to poke fun not only at the authorities who restrict liberal modernists like himself (illustrated by meddlesome citations like “DIDN’T GET ARRESTED”), but also parodies his own craft with the likes of “OH WOW LOOK IT’S SOME STREET ART”.
Karim shows us on his iPad an entire sequence of work that showed Mobstr’s experimental side. When it came to this particular piece, the council monitored and repeatedly painted over his work, but he refused to give up and repainted a new message to them each time. Not only was he toying with the idea of graffiti cover ups as a twist on an art form, he was testing what was seen as acceptable through the red tape and bureaucratic guidelines that moderate graffiti.
Insa’s animated GIF-iti unites the perceivably real with the virtually simulated. As if creating a stunning mural on an entire wall isn’t impressive enough, Insa goes ahead and animates it for us too.
ROA’s wild-meet’s-urban animals. OK so being a country bumpkin, ROA has to be my all-time favourite street artist. This hugely talented Belgian street artist travels the globe to paint detailed animals that are native to the country he paints them in. Some of his work in East London include a stork, rabbit, fox and vole. His pieces take many hours to produce so are usually done with permission.
It’s impossible to miss these astonishing pieces of art and so beloved are they that when Hackney council threatened to paint over one of his Rabbit’s, a huge campaign was launched to protect the artwork. Thankfully, it was successful.
It’s no surprise that entire careers have now been built around this ever-growing art movement; it is literally the most concrete portfolio I’ve ever seen. Gaining an insight into the workings of this underground yet fully visible world is fascinating and well worth the bucks for the two hour tour. Be advised however, wear comfortable shoes, I think I’m not only prepped on my street art knowledge but I could probably enter a power-walking marathon after following Karim on this tour for two hours!
Group tours run Tuesdays @ 10am (£12 for 2 hours), Saturdays and Sundays @ 11am (£14 for 4 hours).